Getting Better at Strategic Communication advice from RAND

25 July 2011

Ironically, some of the best advice regarding dynamic and critical thinking comes from military types. You’d expect them to be rather square but you’d be surprised. I found a very interesting report on Getting Better at Strategic Communication produced by the RAND Corporation that I summarise below. But as always I recommend that you read the document, too.

Christopher Paul‘s report is a testimony presented before the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on July 12, 2011 (which illustrates a mechanisms for influence available to many think tanks).

First, there is no consensus on what is ‘strategic communications’. He identifies three tensions or differences that define the boundaries of what is meant, by different people, by this concept:

Broadcast v Engagement:

We need both, and we can get better at both.

Taped message automatons v loose cannons:

The right answer, then, is a balance somewhere between the two extremes. There needs to be central guidance and coordinating mechanisms, but government personnel need the freedom to put what they need to say in their own words, and to respond to changing situations based on their own understanding of that situation, hopefully within a broader context of well articulated strategies and goals.

Inform v influence:

This is a false dichotomy. Informing without influencing is impossible; there is no such thing as value free information. Every provision of information passes on the attitudes and beliefs of the speaker or writer, and seeks to serve some purpose. “Letting the facts speak for themselves” presupposes that the facts have something to say, and that it is something the speaker wants said. Every provision of information is an act of persuasion.

There is, however, a line to be drawn between benign influence and manipulation. Deception, manipulation, propaganda: these are all inappropriate forms of influence that are unsustainable in the contemporary information environment …

Strategic communication should admit to being about influence, but it should also contain a commitment to the truth, a commitment to credibility, and should be undertaken as “virtuous persuasion.

At the core of strategic communications are a number of common issues respected by all definitions:

  1. The first part of the unassailable core of strategic communication is the belief that it is important to attempt to inform, influence, and persuade in pursuit of policy objectives.
  2. Informing, influencing and persuading in support of national policy requires both that the policy objective be clear, and that it be clear how a certain set of audience attitudes, behaviors, or perceptions will support those objectives… “Effective strategic communication requires clear, consistent core messages that flow from policy goals”
  3. Integration, coordination, and deconfliction are central to strategic communication [to avoid information fratricide:] When one piece of information a government or its forces provides contradicts or is otherwise inconsistent with another piece of information provided by that government, that is information fratricide.
  4. Actions speak louder than words. This truism is absolutely central to an effective strategic communication construct. Any implementation of strategic communication that includes only traditional communication, such as messaging, press releases, media relations, etc. is all but doomed to fail… “Actions” include not just policy actions, but a much broader set of behaviors, deeds, and undertakings by members and representatives of the government.

As a consequence, Christopher Paul’s working definition is:

“Coordinated actions, messages, images, and other forms of signaling or engagement intended to inform, influence, or persuade selected audiences in support of national objectives.”

What his definition does is do away with the jargon that Strategic Communication has it self become. The difficulty in arriving at a definition, he argues, has to do with the fact that everyone uses the term to mean a great deal of different things but instead of spelling them out they choose instead to label them ‘strategic communications’.

Paul is speaking to a defence audience so his recommendations have to do with the US government military apparatus. But some of the aspects of his vision for strategic communications and how to get there certainly resonate with our work on think tanks.

First, he identifies four recurring recommendations in all the reviews and studies that he has come across: the need for leadership, more resources, a clear definition of an overall strategy, and the need for better coordination.

Interestingly, some of the reports he reviewed call for a separate strategic communications body (the equivalent of a separate strategic communications team within a think tank).

Like all good strategic communicators, Paul outlines his vision of what successful strategic communications would look like:

In this vision, we have clearly stated national objectives, which contain nested subordinate objectives, which contain nested intermediate or supporting objectives, nesting all the way down to the operational and tactical level. These clear statements make it easy to see which objectives can be realized through influence or persuasion, and which can be supported through such efforts.

In this vision commanders and decision-makers have a “communication mindedness” and consider the messages and signals their actions, utterances, or planned policies send. Failing that (or as that is developing) these same leaders have access to (and respect for) communication advisors who sit at their right hands and bring communication implications to their attention.

In this vision everyone in government speaks not with one voice like some kind of robot automaton, but with their messages aligned in the same direction, because everyone understands the nested objectives and how their own efforts support those objectives, and because they have (or have access to) requisite communication training and cultural knowledge. In this vision communication is not just one-way broadcast, but is true two-way communication, engagement, or dialogue.

In my vision this leads to policies shaped with our own interests as well as the interests and preferences of others in mind.

This, I think is a brilliantly composed vision. A very good example for anyone attempting to write one up. And how to get there? Seven bits of advice that I think we should all take into consideration:

  1. Specify information endstates: i.e. include in your messages or objective statements a clear mention of what should be the state of information or knowledge at the moment of achieving the intervention’s objectives.
  2. Nest strategies and goals so that all of those involved at different levels work towards the same objectives.
  3. Crawl, walk, run.
  4. Build strategic communications from the top down as well as from the bottom up: i.e. everyone should aim to connect their goals to the level above them, and explain them to the level below them.
  5. Separate black from white: “While inform and influence cannot be meaningfully separated, truth and falsehood can. Lies, deception, and manipulation cost credibility when uncovered.”
  6. Create and disseminate an organisation-wide definition of strategic communication
  7. “If strategic communication as a term is too vague, too contested, or becomes politically untenable, abandon it. Just do not allow the underlying effort to coordinate government impact on the information environment to be lost too.”